He’s dead. His eyes are open, but when she looks into them, they don’t look back at her. She tells herself that she should have died in his place: that despite being younger, she was not braver.
Victory in Europe is declared, and she gets ill. Very ill, very suddenly. She delays the move back to her old flat, because the prospect of hauling furniture across Brussels now seems completely impossible. For weeks she spends most of her time sleeping, and when she isn’t asleep, her head is over the bowl of Le Candide’s upstairs lavatory.
The next time Pascal comes to the restaurant, she pulls him aside and asks him what her symptoms might mean. His stuttering tells her exactly what’s wrong with her.
That night she walks into Nick’s old room, untouched in the few weeks since his death. She sits on his bed and it creaks: it always used to, of course, but it’s louder now. She lies down. The blankets are just as scratchy. The smell is just as musty. There are tears on her cheeks.
She lays both hands on her abdomen and closes her eyes, briefly allowing herself to imagine Nick as a father, his temples grey and his smile wide. She imagines a little boy with dark hair and big brown eyes, jumping into his father’s arms for a tight hug.
She opens her eyes. All she sees is a cobwebbed ceiling and a swinging lightbulb. She sits up too quickly and her head spins, clouding her eyesight. The haze dissipates, and the room is just as miserable as it was before. She sees the lucky piece on his bedside table, and smiles. She takes it, even though it’s starting to feel a little unlucky.
She spots his old briefcase across the room, and goes to open it. Mostly it’s just paperwork from London that she’s certain she isn’t allowed to see, so she tries not to look too closely. But she also finds some personal letters and telegrams – from his mother, some Army friends, men with the same last name whom she assumes to be his brothers. She flips through the pages and catches snippets of another life.
July 16, 1942
Happy Birthday. Hope you’re well. Please write back if you can. I know thirty-three isn’t exactly old age for the rest of us, but it must be ancient in your line of work. Have a good day, old man.
March 12, 1943
I got married last week. Wish you could have been there, mate.
Pearl M. Bradley
January 9, 1944
Nicholas, I know you’re doing very important work, but it isn’t the same here without you. Please come home so I don’t have to talk to your brothers all the time.
June 14, 1944
Your nephews miss you, Nick. Patrick is insisting on still getting you a birthday present.
August 1, 1944
I don’t know if you heard, but Michael was killed in France. Thought I’d tell you.
Pearl M. Bradley
December 31, 1944
Happy Hogmanay, dear Nicholas. I’m sure you’ve heard about Charles’ third little boy. I hope one day you’ll make me very happy and follow in your brothers’ footsteps! You did write about a pretty girl in Belgium.
Natalie takes out her notebook and writes down the woman’s return address.
A few months in, Natalie panics. It’s a bit after closing time, and she quietly steps down the stairs to reach the telephone. She sighs, holds the receiver to her ear, and dials Monique’s new number.
After about ten seconds of ringing, she hears a “Mrs. Durnford speaking!” on the other end of the line.
“It’s Natalie. I’m sorry, I know it’s late. I just need to speak with you.”
Monique sighs, and the sound makes the receiver crackle. “I was awake, don’t worry. Stephen wasn’t, but that’s on him for going to bed so early. And Natalie, this is a long-distance call, it’ll cost a fortune.”
“Albert’s paying for it.”
Natalie pauses. “I’m scared. I don’t know what I’m doing. And I’m doing it alone – I have to be a mother and a father.”
“If it makes you feel any better, I think that even if Nick were here, you’d still have to be both parents.”
Natalie laughs, and it eases the tightness in her chest. “That’s fair.”
“Here’s what I think: you’ve done it all. You’ve saved hundreds of lives. You’ve been holding your breath for years. I’ve never met anyone more capable of doing the parenting work of two people.”
She smiles and pushes away the prickling feeling in her eyes.
The phone cuts out for a moment, and resumes with “new, and scary in a different way. It isn’t... a weekend hauling some schoolboys back to London. It’s forever. But you have to remember that no one’s shooting at you this time. There‘ll be some crying, and some screaming. But that’ll be the worst of it. And after all... you’re Natalie. You’ve always been willing to do anything for good people, even when they’re perfect strangers. And this is your child.”
“Thank you, Monique.”
“It’s alright. I’ll probably call you about the same thing in a few years, so we’ll be even.”
“I can’t wait. Oh, and make sure to pass my apologies to Stephen for waking him.”
“Oh, don’t worry about him. He gets up at 5 in the morning on weeknights. It’s only fair.”
Dear Mrs. Bradley,
You don’t know me, but evidently your son Nick told you about me. I am the “pretty girl in Belgium”.
For the last few months of his life, Nick was working for an organisation in Brussels. I still can’t reveal too much information about it, but I also worked there. Simply put, I fell in love with him. We were planning to marry after the war, but of course you know what happened.
I understand if you want nothing to do with me, but you should know that Nick will be a father after all. I am expecting a baby in late Winter.
I‘m aware that this is a lot to take in at once. Take your time, of course, but if you’d like to maintain contact with me, please respond to this letter using the return address.
My deepest condolences, of course. Your son was a very special person. I adored him.
Some nights, after a particularly long shift or train trip, she’ll fall asleep straight away, but most nights it takes her hours. One cold night in November, she tosses and turns for what feels like forever, adjusting pillows and adding blankets and loudly huffing at no one in particular.
She manages to doze off for a few minutes before the baby kicks her hard in the ribs, waking her up and making her curse. She turns her light back on and resorts to staying awake a little longer. She picks up the lucky piece she keeps by the bed, squeezing it in her hand.
She imagines what their baby will be like – if they’ll have her reserve or his wit, her humility or his confidence, her tenacity or his carelessness. No doubt they’ll be independent: probably too much so. She can tell from all the kicking.
Just before the time she’s due, she opens the door to Nick’s bedroom again. It’s actually no longer his – Albert needs the money for the extra room. But she still doesn’t go in very often.
That new wine is horrid. Make sure to recommend it to the Standartenführer.
I know Albert didn’t kill his wife, but wouldn’t it be interesting if he had?
I‘ve never been married, no. It’s on the bucket list.
Can you please tell Monique to listen to my idea?
I want you, darling.
Well, the war seems to be ending. Let’s say we get married after.
Be safe out there. I know I won’t.
She curses God for making this man the love of her life.
James Nicholas Bradley doesn’t cry right away and Natalie is suddenly struck with a pang of familiar grief, before Pascal rubs Jamie’s chest and he lets out a strangled sob. She can finally breathe again, and when she holds him, she realises he has brown eyes and a generous amount of dark hair. He cries, and so does she.
For a moment, she forgets. She looks to her left to find Nick and sees Albert instead, looking every bit the excellent godfather he’ll surely become.
“Are you alright, Natalie?” Albert asks.
Natalie nods. She looks down at Jamie and sees the look in his eyes. She’s a mother. This boy is her son.
For hours, life doesn’t feel real.
Natalie, he’s just beautiful.
Which languages will he speak?
He looks just like his father.
He’s a baby, Alain, he looks like everyone.
What are you going to do now?
When Monique arrives, her first words are:
You were so brave.
She hasn’t had a gun pointed at her in a very long time. She can go outside at night now. She never needs to climb through bushes anymore. So, most of the time, she doesn’t feel particularly brave. But every time Jamie cries, she knows she’s needed. That there’s decades of work still left to do. That every day will be its own little war.
But she’s fought a war before.